let's visit · On The Ranch · Personal

Questions From Suburban Middle-Schoolers

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It’s National Ag Week! A lot of this week is sharing more about what we do, and answering questions (even more than usual) and really spotlighting agriculture in the US. I’ve been majorly under the weather for a couple of weeks, but I’m glad to say that I’m starting to feel a bit better and so I wanted to share something really fun I got to be a part of!

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege to Skype in with two classes of middle school students who are taught by my 7th grade science teacher. One class was even in the same classroom where I learned about science in 7th grade! They are learning about the environment and photosynthesis and genes, and my teacher asked if I would talk a little bit about cows and the environment, and it was SO fun.

For those of you who don’t know, I grew up smack in the middle of suburban Denver. I could see a mall from my bedroom window (specifically Sears at Park Meadows Mall, if you’re familiar with Colorado.) I didn’t really see many cows until I was 21–other than weekends on a family friend’s ranch when I was young–and have no family members involved in agriculture. Whenever I get a chance to share about ag with anyone, and especially kids in town, especially kids from my own hometown, I get really, really excited. It’s so fun, and such a great experience. I thought I’d share some of the questions I got, because they were fantastic.

What would happen if we got rid of all the cows?
It would be bad. Rangelands evolved alongside grazing animals, and so without (well-managed) grazing, they would become unhealthy. Well-managed rangelands are more productive, healthier, and sequester more carbon. We’d likely have something similar to a dust bowl if we were to get rid of cattle. Not to mention, we would have a hard time meeting micronutrient requirements and protecting our current rangeland/open space from development.

Would it be a good idea for everyone to get a couple of cows?
Honestly? Probably not. Cows take up a lot of room, require a lot to eat and drink, and most people don’t have enough room to support a cow or two. Plus, they are really big, so can get to be expensive to feed and take care of. And, like all animals, cattle can require specialized care. But, that’s not to say that if you want to get some cows that you can’t have any! If you have the room, and learn how to take care of them, then go get you some cows. The average herd size in the US is 40, after all, so there are lots of people with a few cows. If you don’t have room for cows, though, maybe backyard chickens? Chickens can help with food waste, are kind of silly, and can be a fun way to learn more about raising animals!

Do cows make forest fires worse?
Nope! Cattle can actually help mitigate wildfire risk by grazing in forests and helping get rid of some of the dry matter and litter on the ground that can be a major fire hazard. Much of the increase in forest fires, in my opinion, is due to mismanagement of forests. There are too many trees too close together, lots of deadfall, too much dry matter, too much to burn. Cattle can help get rid of some of that stuff that can burn, and at least help fires be less intense!

How do cows stay warm when it’s really cold?
First of all, most cows suited to cold climates grow big fuzzy coats in the winter, so that definitely helps! It’s like a winter coat. Otherwise, we feed them extra in the cold since cows keep warm by eating more, and if it’s snowy or wet, we lay down hay, straw, or other bedding to help provide a barrier between them and the cold, wet ground. If it’s calving season, if it’s possible sometimes we’ll try to bring cows in to the barn or pens before they calve to help keep them warmer and drier, and if a calf gets too cold we’ll warm it up by putting it in the pickup, or in the barn, or in the laundry room, or wherever until it’s warm enough to go back to its mom.

How long can cows live in the cold?
A long, long time. All winter! We used to live in a place where it was so snowy we had to feed hay from October-April, and it regularly got to sixty below in the winter. We never once lost a cow to cold, but we did feed a lot of hay, and checked cows constantly in calving season, because baby calves are at the highest risk to freeze.

Is methane like pollution?
Methane isn’t like pollution in the sense of smog or exhaust. But it is a form of pollution, for sure! Cows aren’t the only (or the biggest) source of methane, though. Oil & gas production, landfills, and wetlands are also sources of methane.

My family lives near a place with cows. Their pasture is very boggy, and the water doesn’t look very clean. Is this bad for the cows?
Probably not, as long as they aren’t constantly hanging out in standing water. If cows’ feet stay too wet too long, they can get infections (foot rot). And, most pasture water is not going to look very clean, because it’s probably muddy and kind of icky, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad for the cows. Just because something doesn’t look clean doesn’t mean it’s dirty, you know?

My neighbors have some cows and some goats, but the cows ate all the grass so now the goats don’t have any to eat. What can they do?
(I’ll admit this question took me a bit by surprise, and I tried really, really hard to be tactful!) Well, the honest answer is to either a) get rid of some or all of the animals, or b) get more land. This is a pretty standard overgrazing situation: too many animals, not enough grass. So either you get rid of some animals or get more grass. You could lock them all in a pen and feed them hay, but that’s a short-term, expensive band-aid. Unfortunately, it can be really hard to regenerate overgrazed pastures, and why it’s not a good idea to just put a bunch of animals on some grass without knowing how many animals it can support and in what conditions. We saw a lot of this on the 40-acre ranchettes around where we lived in Colorado, especially with horses, and it frustrates me quite a bit.

How did you know you wanted to be a rancher instead of a lawyer? [I originally wanted to go to law school following undergrad–I even started studying for the LSAT!] 
I felt it in my heart. I just knew. It made me happier than studying law or my law internship (although that was so fun), and I am more suited to this lifestyle in most ways.

Can you take the GMOs out of milk?
Well, there aren’t GMO cows, and there is no GMO milk, so no, because there aren’t GMOs in the milk. If a dairy cow eats, say, some GMO alfalfa, those genes aren’t going to come out in the milk. She is going to metabolize that alfalfa just like she would any other foodstuff, and that energy is going to help her make milk. That being said, organic milk is milk from cows who were not fed any GMO feed, if that is something that concerns you. However (you knew this was coming), GMOs have been proven safe time and time again!

Are cows and horses similar?
Well, they both have four legs and eat grass, but that’s about it! Cows and horses are incredibly different, but play complementary roles on the ranch: horses help us work and move and care for our cattle more effectively, and the cow work helps keep the horses in shape and their minds sharp. Plus, it makes everything more fun!

let's visit · On The Ranch · Personal

Kindness in Beef Advocacy

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Do you ever have something you want to talk about, that stays on your heart and your brain for days, for weeks, maybe longer, but you never pull the trigger on hitting that “publish” button because you know that some people may not like what you have to say?

Today, I’m hitting publish (well, obviously, because you’re reading this). And, I’ll admit, I’m a little nervous!

Most of my advocacy happens in real life, or via interviews, or written articles, or on phone calls. I’m working on stepping up my game on social media because social media is just not where I shine, nor is it where I’m comfortable, but I know it’s a great way to help lots of people learn more about ag. Given recent happenings (and the current political climate, etc), I know that social media needs more kindness, and I want to be part of that.

I know that the majority of beef advocates truly want to help, want to answer questions honestly, truthfully, and kindly. Truly want to share, and invite in, and befriend, and just be stand-up people sharing their love and knowledge of what they do.

But there are others that enter this arena with a chip on their shoulder, with an idea that people are beholden to farmers and ranchers for feeding them, with a point to prove and not a kind word in their arsenal. That’s not advocacy. That’s being a bully. Yelling at people, calling them names, telling them they are ignorant for the questions they ask and the concerns they have about agriculture is not okay.

Listen, I know that people can be mean. I have been on the receiving end of some real doozies both in person and online, and once in front of a room full of hundreds of people. I get it. It chaps your butt, it gets your dander up, it makes you want to run for the hills or just get real mad. I’m not immune to wanting to hit someone on the head with a skillet. But, guess what: when people are being really, truly nasty, or you’re in a dead-end conversation, it’s okay to say “agree to disagree, thank you for commenting, have a nice day!” and stroll right on out of that conversation that is going nowhere. I’ve done that, too.

Most people aren’t that way. Most people are genuinely wanting to learn, wanting answers to their questions, and want to talk to someone who won’t treat them like they are dumb because they aren’t experts in the matters of cow digestion or GMOs. I grew up in town. I didn’t get involved with cattle until I was 21 years old. I’ve been the person who has no clue. I’m here on the ranch living this life and being a beef advocate because people helped, and spoke, and listened, and took the time to show me things and answer all my questions…and while I really believe there is no such thing as a dumb question, some of my questions got reeeeallllllll close. I’m here because people met me where I was, and never made me feel stupid. I guarantee it would have been a lot harder to keep going if folks had been unkind. Maybe I wouldn’t have. I don’t know.

Please be kind. Be a good experience. Be a helper, a connector, a light. Our message is heard so much better when it’s delivered kindly.

I also feel compelled to say this: be kind for yourself. I have seen some folks who do have a heart for ag, who have a platform, who are proud of what they do and are frustrated that writers, bloggers, politicians, and activists so often get our story (and the actual facts) wrong, but whose passion and knowledge is moot because of the way in which they deliver their message. It becomes overshadowed by the vitriol, and more’s the pity, because we need all the good help we can get.

Kindness doesn’t mean you’re selling your soul or being a doormat. It doesn’t mean you can’t stand your ground, or stand up for what’s right. It just means keeping your manners and integrity about you, and being tactful.

If you want to see how this works in real life, check out Terryn’s most recent post on FFB HERE and Brandi’s letter to Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez HERE.

let's visit · Personal

What I Learned When I Met USFRA in St. Louis

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I’m writing this sitting outside of the Starbucks at gate E18 in the St. Louis airport. It’s 6:15 in the morning, I’ve been up for about two hours, and an espresso frap has never tasted so good!

I’ve spent the last few days in St. Louis with the US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance in training to become a Sustainability Officer, and I think I might sleep for a week when I get home (okay, except not because Bert’s been flying solo and that would be a very unkind thing to do to him) because I don’t think I’ve had this level of sustained excitement and human interaction since our wedding!
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I’ll talk more about what I’ll be doing as a Sustainability Officer in a future post, but while it’s still fresh, I wanted to express a few things I’m taking away with me from these past few days.

  1. We are all connected. Farmers, ranchers, food companies, consumers, and on and on. Sometimes we can get stuck in our own little industries, or feel like what we produce is very different from what someone else is doing, but that’s not the case. We’re all connected, and we should behave as such. I naively (stupidly?) thought that there’s no way I could share much with a soy farmer or even a dairy farmer outside of the very basic things, but oh how wrong I was.
  2. Sustainability is really, really complicated. It involves not only the practices on the ground on the farm or ranch, but it’s also being incorporated into marketing and business plans, and is a key part in consumers’ perceptions of our products and businesses, and consumers have high expectations for all of us in this area.
  3. We need to do better sharing our stories, but more importantly, we need to do better sharing our stories effectively, and remembering that the way we share our stories and the kind of information we provide changes depending on our audience. I’m putting together (another) future post about some things that resonate with certain audiences and other things that don’t–I was really surprised about some of these.
  4. We can always do better.
  5. We all have a stake in this. Everyone’s opinion has value. If you are reading this post, you have a voice in this conversation!
  6. This conversation is not going to be over any time soon. I hear a lot of “Sustainability is just a buzzword. Why are we still talking about this?” And maybe it was a buzzword at one time, but now it’s becoming a (hard to define but very real) thing that is taken into consideration all the way from farm to fork (to landfill/compost heap/the toy bin in your kid’s room where they stash weird little trash treasures). If we ignore it, we’ll get left behind and someone else will take our place or be our voice and we know that’s no good.

So. If you’re reading this, I don’t care who you are or how you feel about agriculture. I want to hear what you have to say because it’s important. Comment with how you feel about sustainability, or what you want to add to the conversation. Ask a question, tell me what you’re doing on your farm or ranch, let me know what you think is important for me to know!